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If you’ve been exposed to coronavirus or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, getting tested is a good idea. You may also be required to get tested for school, work, or other purposes. Whatever the reason for getting tested, you probably want those results quickly. That’s where the rapid COVID test comes in.
While the coronavirus vaccines are being rolled out, containing the virus is still a primary concern, and testing can be a key part of those efforts. It helps people take extra precautions when necessary, and protects the most vulnerable members of the population. Here we’ll cover where you can get a rapid COVID test, what other tests are available, and what you can expect from any test you get.
- Many pharmacies, urgent care clinics, and doctor’s offices now offer rapid COVID testing, often without an appointment.
- Rapid tests can give results within 15–30 minutes, but they’re not quite as accurate as PCR tests, which take longer.
- A few FDA-approved at-home tests currently exist and some can be purchased online or in pharmacies.
- If you have symptoms of COVID or have been exposed to someone with the virus, make sure you get tested. Let anyone you’ve been in contact with know if you test positive.
Where can you get a rapid COVID test?
Millions of coronavirus tests have been done in the United States, and hundreds of thousands of tests continue to be performed every day (Data, n.d.). That’s a far cry from the early days of the pandemic when it was nearly impossible to get your hands on a test.
Now, there are many options for testing. If you need a rapid test done, make sure to look for something called a rapid antigen test, rather than a PCR test.
The PCR test is generally preferred since it’s more accurate than the rapid antigen test. If you need test results quickly, though, the rapid test is the way to go. If you need a rapid COVID test, here are several helpful local resources to check out.
Your state’s health department website
Visit your state’s health department website for recommendations on where to get tested. You can find a list of each state’s health department website here (CDC, 2020). Most states have information on who to contact for testing. You can also do a Google search for the health department in your local county or town to see if there is more specific, local information available.
Many pharmacies now offer rapid COVID testing. Some nationwide chains, like CVS or Rite Aid, offer drive-through testing at certain locations without an appointment. Others require an appointment or may have a fairly long wait. Testing availability usually depends on the demand for tests in your area at the time. You can check with your local pharmacy to see if you need to pre-register before showing up.
Urgent care clinics
Most urgent care facilities around the country now offer COVID-19 testing. If you need rapid testing, in particular, it’s a good idea to call the clinic or check its website to make sure those tests are available. Some clinics may have PCR tests, but not rapid testing (and vice versa), so just make sure before you go. And of course, always check first to see if you need an appointment or if they accept walk-in visits.
Also, keep in mind that while insurance covers many types of tests for people who have been exposed to COVID or those who are experiencing symptoms, they may not be covered if you need them for purposes of travel. Make sure to check with your insurance first.
Through a doctor’s office
You may also be able to get a rapid COVID test at a healthcare provider’s office. If you go this route, bear in mind that your insurance might require a copay for the office visit. The test itself, however, should be covered at no cost depending on your insurance.
A hospital or emergency room should be a last-ditch effort for a rapid test. Many may not be willing or able to perform a test unless you have severe COVID symptoms, such as shortness of breath or trouble breathing. It’s important to avoid going to a hospital or emergency room unless you need to. The CDC recommends going to the emergency room if you have (CDC, 2020):
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face
If you aren’t experiencing severe symptoms, your best bet is to call a healthcare provider or your local pharmacy.
What’s the difference between the different COVID tests?
So far, we’ve mentioned the two main categories of available tests: PCR tests and rapid antigen tests. Both these tests can tell you if you currently have the coronavirus in your body. You’ve probably also heard of COVID antibody tests (also known as serology). This type of test is done with a blood sample and can determine if you’ve had the virus in the past (antibody tests cannot tell if you are currently infected) or if you’ve been vaccinated.
So, what’s the difference between PCR tests and rapid antigen tests, besides how long it takes to get results?
The PCR test looks for the virus’s genetic material (FDA-a, 2020). It uses a special machine that makes a bunch of copies of the virus’s genetic material. That means that even if you only had a little bit in your sample, this test will likely find it. This is what makes PCR tests more reliable than others. This test is most commonly done by inserting a cotton swab deep into the nostril—yes, it can be uncomfortable, but the test only takes a few seconds.
On the other hand, rapid antigen tests look for the virus’s outer shell rather than genetic material. If the shell is present in the sample, the rapid test will show a positive result. The rapid test is usually done with a nasal swab (which doesn’t go as deep in the nostril), although it can sometimes be done with a nasopharyngeal swab, which typically goes deeper into the nose (FDA-a, 2020).
So which test is better? It depends. While the PCR test is better at finding coronavirus, it can stay positive long after you’re no longer infectious (even three months later) so it’s not a good option for everyone. Also, PCR tests can take a while to come back since they require special machinery to be processed. If you need to know right now, a rapid test might be a better option.
While the rapid tests aren’t as sensitive as the PCR tests, they’re pretty good and they work almost instantly. They work a lot like pregnancy tests (where you pee on a stick) but here the sample is taken from your nose/mouth.
How quickly will I get results from a rapid COVID test?
There are a number of different tests on the market, some of which give results as quickly as 15 minutes after being administered. Typically the results are analyzed on the spot and the longest you should have to wait is about 30 minutes.
Compare that to a PCR test, which can take anywhere from 24 hours to a week to get results. PCR tests need to be processed by a lab, and how long that takes depends on each clinic and which lab they work with. High demand for tests can impact processing times, too.
How accurate is the rapid COVID test?
Every test on the market is a little different, but in general, the rapid antigen test is pretty accurate—though less so than the PCR test. When scientists study the accuracy of a test, they’re looking at the following factors (Parikh, 2008):
- Sensitivity: If a test is highly sensitive, it means it does a really good job of identifying which people have the virus. If a test has lower sensitivity, it’s more likely to say that a person doesn’t have COVID, even though they do.
- Specificity: A test that’s highly specific will tell you correctly when a person doesn’t have COVID. A less specific test is more likely to mistakenly say a person has COVID when they don’t, and isn’t as good at ruling people out.
The rapid antigen test is highly specific, but less sensitive than the PCR test (Krüttgen, 2020). That means you’re more likely to catch every single case of COVID with a PCR test than with a rapid antigen test. Even though the PCR test is considered the best test for getting accurate COVID results, it does have downsides. It requires special machinery to process, which is more expensive, and it takes longer to get results.
If you need results quickly, look for a rapid antigen test. Remember, if you receive a negative result but have reason to believe you may have COVID (either you have symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive), you may need to confirm your results with a PCR test.
Are there any at-home COVID tests?
Wouldn’t it be so much more convenient to just have a bunch of tests in your cabinet that you could take as needed, rather than waiting for an appointment? Fortunately, we’re getting closer to that every day. The FDA has granted emergency use authorization for a few at-home COVID-19 tests, which include the following:
- Ellume: The Ellume test is approved for over-the-counter use, meaning you can get it without a prescription. The test can be performed entirely at home and gives results in 15 minutes. It’s not widely available, however (FDA-b, 2020).
- Lucira: The Lucira test can be done completely at home but is only available with a prescription from a healthcare provider. This test also uses a unique technology called RT-LAMP, which is similar to the PCR test. It gives results in about 30 minutes (FDA-c, 2020).
- Pixel by LabCorp: You can collect your sample at home for the Pixel test, and you don’t need a prescription. But the sample needs to be processed by LabCorp, which means you won’t get your results right away (FDA-d, 2020).
At-home tests will likely become more widely available over time, but for now, in-person tests are still the most accessible option.
Know your options for COVID-19 testing
As we all continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing to keep COVID-19 contained, it’s also important to have a plan for getting tested as needed. Even if you don’t currently need to get tested, it’s a good idea to find out about testing sites in your area. If you are exposed to someone with the COVID-19, or if you have symptoms, be sure to get tested and, if you test positive, quarantine and make sure to tell all of your contacts.
According to the CDC, you can stop quarantining when (CDC, 2020):
- At least 10 days have passed since your positive test if you did not have any symptoms.
- At least 10 days have passed since your symptoms first appeared.
- You have been fever-free for at least 24 hours without using fever-reducing medication, and any other COVID symptoms you have are improving.